For the first time since Congress passed the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, a Republican-appointed judge has voted to uphold Congress's power to enact the health care reform law, including the minimum coverage provision. The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit, the first court of appeals to rule on the merits of the issue, issued its ruling today in Thomas More Law Center v. Obama.
Judge Jeffrey Sutton--a prominent conservative appointed by President George W. Bush--agreed with his colleague, Judge Boyce Martin, a Carter-appointee, that the lawsuit by the Thomas More Legal Center should be thrown out. In doing so, Judge Sutton has transformed the debate over the Affordable Care Act and powerfully advanced the cause of judicial independence.
Much had been made of the fact that the district court judges who had considered the merits of the constitutional challenges to the Act had split along partisan lines: two Republican-appointed judges held the minimum coverage provision was unconstitutional, while two Democratic-appointed judges upheld the provision's constitutionality. But with today's ruling, supported by a pair of judges considered, respectively, to be quite liberal and quite conservative, the American people are reminded that when judges do their job, the outcome depends not on which President appointed them, but on the law. And whether one thinks the Affordable Care Act is good or bad policy, it is constitutional. As Judge Sutton wrote, "Call this mandate what you will--an affront to individual autonomy or an imperative of national health care--it meets the requirement of regulating activities that substantially affect health care."
Judge Sutton also blew out of the water the major theme of the challengers' argument--a theme that plays well on TV and talk radio, but has absolutely no constitutional basis. The Act's challengers have vigorously pressed the argument that by allowing the federal government to require those who can afford it to purchase health insurance or pay a penalty, the courts will give Congress carte blanche to regulate all sorts of other "inactivity." But Judge Sutton rightly noted that "No one is inactive when deciding how to pay for health care, as self-insurance and private insurance are two forms of action for addressing the same risk. Each requires affirmative choices; one is no less active than the other; and both affect commerce."
Nonetheless, as Judge Sutton acknowledged, there is an intuitive appeal of this argument for most Americans, one that leads to the big-government nightmares of forced broccoli eating or mandated gym memberships. But Sutton makes clear that the Constitution does place limits on Congress's power beyond simply the Commerce Clause that would not leave Congress free to require Americans to do fifty push-ups every morning. As Sutton writes, "even the most powerful intuition about the meaning of the Constitution must be matched with a textual and enforceable theory"--and sound bites about government run amok in circumstances that the Constitution would clearly not allow do not make the cut.
On the other hand, the Sixth Circuit's ruling today does reaffirm another American intuition--that our Nation's judiciary is more independent and less partisan than our other branches of government. The judgment by Judge Boyce Martin and Judge Jeffrey Sutton that Congress has the power to enact the minimum coverage provision under the Constitution's Commerce Clause shows that constitutional disputes should, when the judiciary is working properly, turn on the text and history of our Nation's charter and controlling Supreme Court decisions. Today's ruling is certainly a win for the Obama Administration, but it is also a victory for the Constitution and our judicial system.